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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11949

Mr ZAPPIA (7:27 PM) —Tuesday, 25 November 2008 was a defining day for Australia. On that day we saw the culmination of one of the most intense political battles that I can recall. For many, it was a battle for political survival. We saw intense activity by the Australian people, by industry sectors, by political parties and by the union movement. Tuesday, 25 November 2008 was a day on which working people across Australia had their dignity restored, their worth restored and their natural rights restored to them. It was the day the Rudd government delivered on another key election promise and introduced legislation that returned fairness and justice to Australia’s industrial relations system.

The Rudd government’s fair work laws are not simply about workplace rights. They are inherently about civil rights and about human rights—rights that Australians hold dearly; rights that, over the years, 102,000 Australians have lost their lives to defend, including one very recently; rights that are enshrined in the pledge of allegiance that is sworn by new Australian citizens. Let me quote parts of that pledge:

I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people whose democratic beliefs I share … whose rights and liberties I respect.

Members opposite come into this place with their hands on their hearts, pronouncing the virtues of those very rights. Sadly, their words are not matched by their actions. I can think of no more glaring example of the shallowness of the opposition members’ commitment to those values than their Work Choices legislation. It was legislation which exposed the coalition for what it really stands for—as a party which puts economic growth and economic efficiency ahead of human rights and as a party which believes in and wants to maintain social division and class supremacy. The coalition members’ extreme Work Choices legislation, which the Rudd government’s new Fair Work Bill 2008 replaces, was socially divisive and socially unjust.

To those coalition members opposite who were in this parliament and in government, many of them as senior ministers, when their Work Choice legislation was rammed through the parliament, and to the member for Mayo, who had a personal hand in that legislation, I ask this: where was the justice in refusing to allow workers the right to have someone with experience negotiate working conditions on their behalf? Where was the justice when employers used skilled human resource managers to negotiate working conditions with workers who had no such skills? Where was the justice in having people who often had no education and sometimes no English language skills negotiate employment conditions with skilled human resource managers? And where was the justice in negotiating work conditions with working people who had mortgages to pay, families to feed and clothe, and no certainty of being employed if they refused to accept the employer’s employment conditions?

For working Australians there was no justice, no fairness and no choice. But the Australian people did have one choice. That was the choice to condemn the coalition members to the opposition benches of parliament, and the then reigning Prime Minister into political oblivion. And that is what they did on 24 November 2007, just as Australian voters had done with Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in 1929 when he too sought to treat working Australian workers with similar contempt, and destroy the conciliation and arbitration system and introduce the anti-union legislation, the Maritime Industries Bill.

Let me now turn to the question of human rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

The coalition’s extreme Work Choice legislation breached all of those fundamental human rights and so did the coalition members who enacted that legislation. How can you guarantee equal pay for equal work when you have workers in the same workplace doing the same work on different workplace agreements? You simply cannot. What you do end up with is workers pitted against each other and an unproductive workplace.

But we should not be surprised that the coalition’s Work Choice laws were so extreme. Their track record on human rights was abysmal and history will portray it as such. We saw it with their anti-terrorist legislation. We saw it with the way they treated asylum seekers, and we saw it with the extreme powers they gave the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The coalition’s Work Choice laws were also clearly aimed at destroying the union movement in Australia. Again it was clearly in breach of Article 23 which also states:

Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests.

How could unions protect workers’ interests if they were barred from workplaces? Again, the coalition misjudged this issue badly, and the obsession and paranoia with unions has been very evident from coalition members’ contributions on this bill so far.

No government will ever destroy the will of the people. They may suppress it for a time but in the end the will of the people will prevail. From my experience most employers are fair and reasonable people. Most employers do not take advantage of their employees. Most employers are real people with children of their own. As employers, they understood how it could easily be their own children who would be exploited under the coalition’s Work Choice laws. Not surprisingly, during the 2007 election campaign, I came across many employers who told me that they were opposed to the coalition’s Work Choice laws.

A wolf will shed its fur but not its habits. Coalition members opposite may pronounce Work Choices dead, as many of them have. In name I am sure that Work Choices is dead. But coalition members’ conviction that working people should simply be grateful to their employer for giving them a job is alive and well, and it is that conviction which will drive their IR policies if ever they return to government. What we will then see is the same policies rebadged under a different name. We heard from speaker after speaker about their true beliefs when it comes to industrial relations laws.

Other members on this side of the House have spoken at length about the detail of the government’s Fair Work Bill and I do not intend to repeat what has been said many times over. I will summarise the bill though with these few remarks. The government’s Fair Work Bill is fair in name and fair in content—fair to both employers and to employees. It ensures decent work conditions reflective of a modern civil society. It provides for an independent umpire to arbitrate where agreement cannot be reached. It protects workers from unfair dismissal. It allows collective bargaining and union representation. It delivers on what millions of Australians voted for and what they expect.

And not surprisingly, this bill has broadly been welcomed by Australians across all sectors, not just by the union members, not just by the unions, but also by most of the industry sectors out there. It has been welcomed because they all accept and understand fairness in society and they also understand that this bill reflects fairness. It was put together after extensive consultation with unions, with working people, with members of parliament and with all of the industry sectors. And not surprisingly, it reflects a balanced outcome of all views that have been put by all of those sectors. That is exactly why this bill has received the very strong support that it has since it has been released. I commend this bill to the House and I feel proud to be a member of the Rudd government which delivered it.